Cancer can’t ground aerial acrobatic artist Cynthia MacPhee.
Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photographed by TC Franklin
Cynthia MacPhee isn’t daunted by challenges. At the age of 47, the
Torrance resident took up aerial arts—a cross between gymnastics
and dance that involves climbing and using fabric to wrap, spiral and
perform other graceful movements from heights of 20 to 50 feet in the air.
MacPhee and her husband, Bill, have two young adult children, and their
daughter has autism, which also presented challenges. In 2015 MacPhee
was diagnosed with cancer of the throat, necessitating several surgeries,
chemotherapy and radiation and resulting in a speech impediment. Even
as she continues to face the disease, she works hard to regain the strength
she needs to soar.
Do you have an athletic background?
Cynthia MacPhee: My family was always active, and I was athletic growing
up. I swam, played tennis and soccer and did springboard diving at the
Jack Kramer Club [in Rolling Hills Estates]. I loved diving because I
loved being in the air. I don’t have a lot of fear. I also would
have done more dance if I’d realized how much I liked it, but I
didn’t discover that until becoming a song leader my senior year
at Palos Verdes High School.
How did you become attracted to aerial acrobatic arts?
CM: I saw Pink doing it in a music video. I didn’t realize what it
was. I bought the DVD, and the behind-the-scenes material mentioned her
aerial acrobatic coordinator. I thought, “Huh. This is something
people do. I’m going to do this.”
I was nervous, but I found a class in the Valley and went. My husband could
tell how excited I was when I got home. I had been coming out of a depression
as I was raising my special needs daughter, and going to the studio helped
lift me up. Then I found a studio closer to home and started going more
And now you teach?
CM: I trained with my current boss, Jill Franklin, an amazing woman who
does teacher training around the world. She asked me to teach at her studio,
Aerial Physique. I used to teach Adventures in Art to elementary school
students, so I started by teaching kids. And then I expanded to adults.
I’ve been teaching aerial acrobatic arts for about six years now.
My students call me Kiki. (My Instagram is @Kikiintheair.)
How do you feel when you’re doing it?
CM: It makes me feel like a kid at play on the jungle gym. It makes me
happy. I love to be up high, and I love to spin. And it makes me feel
How has doing aerial acrobatics impacted your experience with cancer?
CM: It makes me feel strong. It’s very hard work. You have to be
completely focused. You can’t think about anything else, so you
can forget all your problems. It also makes me feel healthy. I was very
physically strong when I went into cancer treatment, and each time (the
cancer returned three times) that’s helped in my recovery. Both
my right and left fibula bones were used to replace part of my jaw in
two different surgeries, but I’m still able to do the acrobatics.
The first question I always ask the doctor after a surgery is, “When
can I hang upside down?” They smile, as they understand my passion.
What was an aerial acrobatic highlight?
CM: I’m a Cabi clothing stylist/salesperson, and our CEO, Kimberly
Inskeep, used aerial arts as a theme for a semi-annual meeting in 2016.
She invited me to tell my story and perform, along with three other professional
aerialists, in front of about 3,000 stylists. Also Kimberly took daily
lessons from me for three months, and she surprised the group by performing
what she’d learned. The whole night was a highlight of my aerial
career. I was honored to be featured on the BIG stage.
How has the community responded to your cancer diagnosis?
CM: The aerial community has been incredibly supportive. When I came home
from the hospital the first time, there were paper cranes hanging everywhere
in my house. There’s a Japanese tradition that folding 1,000 paper
cranes can bring you a treasured wish. My friend Melissa asked people
to send cranes, and she received them from aerial community members around
the world. She also secretly planned a benefit to raise money to support my care.
My husband is a minister at The River Church of the South Bay, and the
congregants have also been incredibly supportive. Members anonymously
contributed to a fund to purchase special healthy liquid protein for me
(I can’t eat solid food), and they’re constantly cooking meals
and baking treats for Bill and Heather. (Son Conner is an architect and
lives out of the house.)
I continue to receive letters, cards, flowers, gifts, food and prayers
from friends and family around the world.
What’s your advice to someone who might be considering trying aerial
CM: Go for it! Give an introductory class a try … you only live